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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 19, No. 3


by Charles-David Tremblay, Phillipe Gervais, Paul E. Robinson & Joseph So / November 1, 2013

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R. Murray Schafer: Quartets 8-12,
Molinari Quartet, ATMA ACD2 2672

As part of its residence at the Montreal Conservatory of Music, the Molinari Quartet worked in close partnership with Raymond Murray Schafer and, for this recording, offers his last cycle of quartets, Nos. 8-12.

Renowned for the consistency of its performances, the Molinari has already recorded four of the last six quartets composed by Murray Schafer. The ensemble skilfully enhances this cycle, which reminds one of Hans Werner Henze’s and Krzysztof Meyer’s quartets.

Oscillating between atonality and modality, the writing is compelling. The works are unified by leitmotifs responding from one quartet to another, such as the one from the last movement of the eighth quartet opening also the ninth. In addition to the thematic continuity, the narrative present in the tenth quartet allows us to explore a revised structure of the chamber ensemble: the presence of children’s voices recorded in the ninth quartet is another distinction in the instrumentation.

The contrapuntal detail undermines the articulating of a unique harmonic language. Indeed, the quartets summarily resemble one another with their horizontal and avant-garde writing. Elements of micro-tonality and polyrhythm are also used, while not enhancing the musical ideas.

The structure is also an aesthetic and practical concern in Schafer’s work. Building quartets according to a clear architecture at times allows for abstract developments. However, the redundancy of the single movements of the ninth, tenth and twelfth quartets harms the relation between substance and form, the affirmation of the acoustic space sometimes existing at the expense of musical ideas.

Schafer’s last string quartets are undoubtedly part of an important cycle in the composer’s repertoire. In such a strong performance, the texts are strengthened by a framed structure and effective writing. CDT

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 Op. 60 and 7 Op. 92
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell, Conductor & Concertmaster
Sony Classical 88725 44881-2 (72 m 30 s)

Joshua Bell is one of only a few superstar violinists on the international circuit. His name on a program almost guarantees a sellout. It was recently announced that Bell was turning his hand to conducting; he was appointed music director of the legendary Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. This release marks their first recording with Bell at the helm.

In some ways Bell is still a reluctant conductor; he sometimes leads the ASMF from the concertmaster’s chair and even when in front of the orchestra, as often as not he has a violin in his hand rather than a baton. But the ASMF has always operated as a large chamber ensemble rather than an orchestra, and in Bell they have found the perfect leader. He has played chamber music all his life, is a fabulous string player and embraces the idea of collaboration rather than lording it over a band of faceless musicians.

In their first recording together Bell and the ASMF make a fine impression. The playing is impeccable, committed and often downright explosive. These symphonies are not chamber pieces and Bell doesn’t treat them as such. With a team of about 40 players the music remains transparent and delicate in the quiet passages but reaches thrilling heights in the climaxes. PER

Haydn: Piano Concertos Nos. 3,4 & 11
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie
Hyperion CDA67925 (61 m 42 s)

This recording presents an odd contrast; while the soloist plays on a modern Steinway, the orchestra plays in an “historically informed” manner, i.e. the string players adopt a studied lightness and use little or no vibrato. Hamelin certainly doesn’t attempt to make his Steinway sound like a harpsichord – the instrument for which Haydn composed these pieces –in fact, he makes full use of his instrument’s vast dynamic range.

But no matter. These are carefully prepared performances and played with great gusto and musicality. Hamelin has already demonstrated an affinity for Haydn with three Haydn Sonata recordings issued by Hyperion. He manages to find humour and surprise in these concertos, elements which have eluded some of the finest pianists. I am reminded of one particular recording by Michelangeli that was stoic to the point of absurdity.

Hamelin uses cadenzas by Wanda Landowska in the D major concerto and his original cadenzas in the others. His cadenza in the first movement of the G major is delightfully quirky. PER

Robert Aitken Vol. 1
J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord BWV 1030/1031/1032 (recorded in 1979)/Partita for Flute and Harpsichord BWV 997 (recorded in 1969)
Robert Aitken, flute/Greta Kraus, harpsichord
C.P.E. Bach: Flute Concerto in D minor Wq 22
Robert Aitken, flute/Vancouver Chamber Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner (live performance, Vancouver, 1981)
DOREMI DHR-6611 (76m 20s)

Robert Aitken is without a doubt the finest flutist ever produced in Canada; he had his pick of almost any orchestral job, and in his 20s he was principal flute of the Vancouver and the Toronto Symphonies. Ultimately he chose to concentrate on a solo career and became the mastermind behind New Music Concerts, one of the oldest new music organizations in the country.

Aitken frequently performed in Toronto with harpsichordist Greta Kraus (1907-1998), to great acclaim. This recording captures them both at their impeccable best, although the recording makes the harpsichord sound very distant, as if it is being played from the next room.

The C.P.E. Bach performance is sensational, and makes available a precious collaboration between Aitken and John Eliot Gardiner during the few years (1980-83) the conductor headed the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra. Gardiner brings his familiar imaginative authority to bear on this great concerto, and Aitken plays with technical wizardry and beautiful tone. It is hard to believe this is a live performance. PER

Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)/The Firebird Suite (augmented 1911 version)
Walther Stram Concerts Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
Recorded in 1929 (Le sacre) and 1928 (The Firebird)
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Pristine Audio PASC 387 (60 m 36 s)

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Beyond any doubt this was a milestone in the history of music. Stravinsky created new sounds and rhythms that influenced nearly every composer who came after. This performance is conducted by the composer himself, thirteen years after the debut performance.

Stravinsky recorded Le sacre twice more; in 1940 with the New York Philharmonic and in 1960 with the Columbia Symphony, an ensemble of New York freelancers. While the recording presented here is special in that it was made so soon after the first performance, it has a number of flaws. The orchestral playing in this first recording is not very good, and in spite of Obert-Thorn’s efforts the recording quality is typical of the period, resulting in a thin and muffled sound from the percussion and bass sections. Yet these deficiencies in fact contribute to a positive overall effect; the primitivism of the music emerges more starkly than in more recent recordings. In few other recordings of Le sacre have I been so struck by how the score manages to be both primitive and avant-garde.

The sound quality on the Firebird Suite seems much better, and the colors in the orchestra are surprisingly vivid, even though it was recorded in the same year.

These performances have been available before but never in versions as clean and pitch-accurate as on this Pristine CD. These are valuable historic documents and Mark Obert-Thorn and Andrew Rose deserve great credit for their restoration work. PER

Russian Operas 
CD: Live performances from Soiree de musique russe (1972)
DVD: Boris Godounov (Death of Boris) from Societe Radio-Canada Les Beaux Dimanches (1983) 
Joseph Rouleau, bass
Analekta AN 2 9223-4 CD (39m 9s) / DVD (27m 30s)

French Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau is the epitome of the operatic evergreen. Born in 1929 in Matane, Quebec, Rouleau’s career began in 1950. Now 84, he is still singing! In an interview he gave for the CBC last year, Rouleau explained the secret of his longevity. Here is a previously unreleased 1972 live performance on Radio-Canada of Russian arias. Eight arias from Prince Igor to Eugene Onegin representing the heart of the repertoire, all sung with rich tone, impressive power and vivid expression, with the kind of gravitas that only the great basso profondo voices can summon. The low notes in the aria from Iolanta will send chills down your spine. Rouleau is a great Verdian - an unforgettable King Philip - but many think that he was born to sing the Russian repertoire. For this review, I consulted an opera expert who is also a native Russian speaker, and he confirms that Rouleau’s Russian is exemplary. He also points out an oddity - Dosifei’s aria from Khovanshchina with piano (a track from the BBC) is sung in very Russian-sounding English! It’s a pity that the CD is only 39 minutes long, but one is compensated by the inclusion of a DVD bonus of Death of Boris from 1983. If there is a criticism, it is the insufficient documentation - the conductor of the 1972 performance, Jean Deslauriers, is only mentioned in small print in the liner notes, absolutely no mention of fellow artists in the Death of Boris video. The audio and video are vintage 1970’s. The booklet has a short bio and an equally short article. No text or translations. A must-have for fans of Rouleau and lovers of the bass voice.  JS

Alessandro Grandi Complete Arias
Bud Roach, tenor and Baroque Guitar
Musica Omnia MO 0506 (70 m 34 s)

In this Verdi and Wagner year, music in the grandest of scale can be exhausting. So, a CD featuring a repertoire that is the polar opposite in period and style is a welcomed discovery. This is the premiere recording of the complete arias volume III (1626) by Italian Baroque master Alessandro Grandi (1586 - 1630). Canadian tenor Bud Roach sings and accompanies himself on the guitar.

The 23 arias are all dispatched with exemplary style, taste, and beauty of tone by Roach. Given the aesthetics of the Italian Baroque, one must not expect a grand musical, stylistic or emotional range - the arias tend to be in minor keys and mostly about unrequited love.

Roach’s voice is a “haute-contre” - sweet in timbre, light in weight and possessing excellent flexibility, ideal for this repertoire. A haute-contre is not a countertenor, as even in the top range there is no hint of a true falsetto; instead, it is a “voix-mixte.”

For baroque fans, this is a terrific disc, beautifully rendered, with a recorded sound that is warm and clear. Those new to this repertoire may want to sample a few pieces at a time rather than hearing all 23 arias in one sitting, as there is an inevitable sameness. In the nicely produced booklet is a very well written and informative essay by Roach. Highly recommended for Baroque fanciers. JS

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